Call for Return of Chinese "Cultural Relics"

Both China Daily and CCTV have reported on China’s efforts to seek the return of two bronze animal heads, which were stolen from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace in 1860 by an Anglo-French coalition during the Second Opium War. They were created in the 18th century. I learned with great interest that it was Lord Elgin who ordered the burning of the Summer Palace — perhaps to discourage Chinese forces from kidnapping and as recompense for mistreating prisoners. Students of history will know his father was Thomas Bruce, the 7th Lord of Elgin who removed the Parthenon frescoes from Greece.
Charles George Gordon, a 27-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers wrote:

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.

These heads, one of a rabbit and one of a mouse were two of 12 sculptures which were taken. Five others are still missing. Christies has announced these objects will be on sale next February in the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge Collection auction in Paris. At least some of the proceeds from the sale will be used for AIDS prevention. The two items are expected to fetch at least 8 million Euros. Any legaly claim for these sculptures will have long-since expired, despite the less-than-noble way in which they were looted.

The China’s Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Fund, a privately funded organization has indicated it may try to purchase these objects and return them to China. In 2003 and 2004 the organization attempted to buy back these objects, but the asking price was $10 million. As the spokesperson told Daily China, “At that time, we bought back the pig’s head for less than $1 million. We think the offered prices are unreasonable and unacceptable.” China, an emerging economic power is in a unique position among nations of origin, as it can often use its considerable economic clout to buy back objects which were removed from the country during the imperial age.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China Refuses Loans

Pictured here is a Chinese poster from the Cultural Revolution which states “We’ll destroy the old world and build a new one”. Notice the worker is smashing a Buddha, Chinese classics, and a crucifix. This paints a much different picture than the one China has tried to portray during the Olympics, particularly Zhang Yimou’s remarkable opening ceremonies.

Perhaps that’s why China has made the troubling decision to refuse to loan works of art to the Asia Society which will focus on Chinese art from the 1950s to the 1970s. Robin Pogrebin in the NY Times, and Jason Edward Kaufman for the Art Newspaper both report on the decision.

Kaufman says the show “Art and China’s Revolution” “surveys three decades of Chinese art following Mao Zedong’s establishment of the republic in 1949, including the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when the government controlled artist production. Exhibitions of photographs and posters have explored the politics and propaganda of Maoist China, but none has assembled ink and oil paintings, sketchbooks and prints by both underground and official artists, including the “model” paintings on which millions of social-realist posters were based.”

The art produced by these cultural shifts, through propaganda, often has tremendous impact and is highly sought after decades later. Such is the case with Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film I Am Cuba (which is examined in some detail by Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club). Works of art continue to be powerful political and cultural forces even after the impetus for their creation has diminished.

China perhaps has good almost realpolitik reasons for not deciding to allow these loans — they want to portray their nation in a much different light now. Individuals and States have a lot of reasons for wanting to restrict themovement of works of art. Some of them are sound (to prevent looting of archaeological sites for example) others are open to criticism (hiding or minimizing history).

This is a very good example of the detrimental impact of strong national control of works of art. James Cuno has been roundly criticized for many of his views — and for good reason in some cases. But in this situation, I think his main thesis is on point: works of art are often political tools for nations. The idea of cosmopolitanism can allevieate Chinese reluctance to show art from this period, and in fact some of the other private loans are doing just this. Of course art isn’t just used for political goals either, as Kaufman notes “It has been a decade since the Asia Society’s major exhibition “Inside Art: New Art from China” helped spur the boom in Chinese contemporary art. Will the present exhibition have a similar effect on the market for art of the Cultural Revolution?”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China and the CPIA

Kevin Bogardus has an interesting article in The Hill on the State Department and its Cultural Property Advisory Committee taking its sweet time in deciding on whether to impose import restrictions on Chinese antiquities.

China made the request in 2004, and both proponents and critics of the restrictions are eager for a decision. Members of the Ancient Coin Collector’s Guild and others have even brought suit to elicit more information from the State Department about the deliberations with respect to the requests of China and Cyprus. It seems they have started to receive “heavily redacted” documents. Given the administration’s adamant refusal to disclose what it deems privileged information, even on the most mundane matters, it should be a long and difficult task. This is regrettable. Though I don’t share their criticism of the restriction, I do think we would all be better served in knowing how these decisions are made.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee

The Museum Security Network mailing list today circulated a really fascinating blog entry by Gary Vikan from last month. Vikan was discussing a NY Times article on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. It’s a State Department body which recommends whether the US should adopt import restrictions on certain classes of objects. It’s the way the US chose to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Here’s a link to the NY Times article, Is the US Protecting Foreign Artifacts? Don’t Ask. You can access it via the timesselect service, which is free to academics and students. `

Here’s a link to Gary Vikan’s post. Of particular interest are some of the comments after the post.

Here’s an excerpt of what Vikan had to say:

The work of CPAC, which was created in 1983 by legislation intended to give effect to ratification of the UNESCO Convention on cultural property (1970), is to make recommendations to the State Department on applications from foreign nations asking, in effect, that their export laws governing cultural property become our import laws. From its inception, the committee’s activities have been highly secretive; in recent years, its internal deliberations have become increasingly contentious, as the archaeologists’ voice has come to dominate the collectors and dealers on the committee.

The hot issue now is whether the State Department will accept, on CPAC’s recommendation, a sweeping ban on the import of Chinese art and artifacts predating 1911. (The often-repeated counterarguments are that the Chinese have yet to clean up their own art-dealing house and that the share of the Chinese trade is relatively small, and will simply go elsewhere.)

The points made by Kahn, and through him, by his many sources on and off the committee, including its present chair, Jay Kislak, are right on the mark. The archaeologists’ voice and values are disproportionately strong among the CPAC membership, and its activities are overly secretive and exclusionary.


Vikan’s perspective is very enlightening, as he served on the CPAC from 2000-2003, and resigned after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. Both links are essential reading if you are interested in cultural policy or the protection of antiquities.

Much of this controversy centers around China. China may be one of the most important source nations for antiquities. Two aspects make it unique. First, as John Henry Merryman says “China, with its many centuries of high civilization and its vast area and large population, may be the richest source of cultural property of all.” Second, China has used some unique regulatory techniques, including a ratings system for antiquities and a state right of purchase, which might both prove useful if implemented properly. Unfortunately, China’s current legal framework does a poor job of preserving antiquities and their accompanying archaeological context, as antiquities may be the single most valuable commodity smuggled out of the country.



Without regard to the reasons given for the panel’s secrecy, from an academics perspective it is indeed frustrating that we can’t have a clearer picture of how the advisory committee reaches its decisions. However, all 11 requests for import restrictions have been granted. Whether that will continue for China and Cypress remains to be seen. The importance of the committee internationally should not be underestimated, as the US by most accounts is considered the largest importer of art and antiquities.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com